Commentary, Courts & the Law, Defending Democracy, Education, Legislature

The Week’s Top Stories on NC Policy Watch

1.Latest school testing proposals are emblematic of NC’s failed public ed policies

There’s an old adage – often attributed to Albert Einstein and/or Mark Twain – that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Neither Einstein nor Twain ever had occasion to review the effectiveness of North Carolina’s K-12 education policy, but it seems likely that if the two great men could be transported forward in time to the modern era to render such an assessment, each would nod, smile wistfully, and say “I told you so.”

The latest compelling indicator of this sobering reality: the recent spate of proposals from state lawmakers to overhaul both the state’s K-12 testing regimen and the system of letter “performance” grades handed out to individual schools.

As Raleigh’s News & Observer reported last week, Rep. Jeffrey Elmore, a teacher from Wilkes County, has introduced a bill that would do away with numerous tests that are inflicted on North Carolina students and teachers each year. [Read more…]

2. Supreme Court weighs its role in limiting partisan gerrymandering

U.S. Supreme Court justices appeared willing Tuesday to rein in partisan gerrymandering — desperate even, for attorneys to give them some sort of manageable numeric standard by which they could determine how much politics is too much when it comes to redistricting.

It wasn’t that simple, though, and after considering three challenges to congressional maps — two to the 2016 GOP-drawn map in North Carolina and one to a Democratic-drawn map in Maryland — at least two conservative justices seemed unconvinced to expend any more judicial energy on the issue.

Justice Samuel Alito, a George W. Bush appointee, and Justice Neil Gorsuch, a Donald Trump appointee, both seemed hung up on the lack of a numeric solution to the problem and fixated on alternatives to court intervention.[Read more…]

Bonus read: NC Republicans double down on partisan gerrymandering

3. On Medicaid expansion, John Kasich is unchained in North Carolina


John Kasich insisted several times this week that he’s a free man.

Free from politics? Free from partisanship? Free from Trump? Certainly not free of ambition – the former Ohio governor all but acknowledged last week that he hasn’t ruled out another run for president.

Yet whatever’s unchained Kasich, be it canny political strategy or a moneymaking book deal or Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder, we’re the better for it in North Carolina, at least for today.

Kasich’s savvy skewering of North Carolina Republicans during Tuesday’s N.C. Rural Center event was one part stump speech — rife with jabs at his supposedly vanquished political rivals in Ohio — and one part scolding, lambasting the GOP’s untenable and unconscionable Medicaid blockade in Raleigh. [Read more…]

4. State Superintendent Mark Johnson doesn’t support May 1 teacher protest march

State Superintendent Mark Johnson didn’t attend last year’s teacher protest march and rally for higher pay and more school funding.

And he isn’t likely to make it to the second march planned for May 1.

Johnson, a Republican elected in 2016, said in a statement Thursday that he can’t support a protest that “forces schools to close.”

“The protest organizers should choose a non-school day,” Johnson said. “The legislature will be in session in Raleigh for at least another three months, a time period that spans dozens of days students are not scheduled to be in school, including spring break and summer break.” [Read more…]

Bonus reads:

5. Senate committee deals another blow to controversial environmental nonprofit

The Resource Institute, a politically connected nonprofit that received a controversial and unprecedented $5 million appropriation for hurricane recovery in last year’s budget, could lose part of its windfall, according to a bill that passed out of the Senate Rules Committee today.

Sen. Harry Brown, a Republican from Onslow County, last week had amended Senate Bill 95, which contains various appropriations, to redirect $1.6 million of RI’s original funding to North Topsail Beach to help with beach renourishment and hurricane recovery.

North Topsail Beach “already has plans in place,” Brown told his fellow lawmakers on the Rules Committee.

While that is true, Brown’s statement downplayed the disgruntlement of North Topsail town officials over the Resource Institute appropriation, which led them to petition Brown to redirect the money.  [Read more…]

Bonus read:
And the wind cried Harry: Sen. Brown introduces anti-wind energy bill — again

6. NC lawmakers introduce package of LGBTQ-friendly bills

On Thursday, Democratic state lawmakers filed three bills designed to protect LGBTQ North Carolinians from discrimination, outlaw harmful “conversion” therapy that targets them and fully repeal HB2 — the infamous law that cast an international spotlight on the state as a battleground for transgender rights.

“As a transgender woman I know that the bills filed today will have a very real impact on the lives and legal equality of LGBTQ North Carolinians,” said Allison Scott, director of policy for the Campaign for Southern Equality.

“So many attacks on the LGBTQ community are linked, rooted in the desire to wave us away,” Scott said. “The company that fires someone because of who they are, the business that refuses to sell something to a same-sex couple, the so-called ‘conversion’ therapist who tries to force someone to change a core part of themselves.

The North Carolina lawmakers who try to tell me that I can’t use the women’s restroom.”[Read more…]

7. Weekly Editorial Cartoon:

HB2, Legislature, News

For some legislators, a personal fight for LGBTQ rights

When Democratic state lawmakers introduced a package of bills to protect LGBTQ North Carolinians  this week, they knew it would be a difficult road to passage.

The current Republican majority hasn’t let similar bills come to a vote when they were introduced in previous years.

A bill that would completely repeal HB2 will be a non-starter with many of the GOP legislators who passed it still in their seats.

A non-discrimination bill that explicitly protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination in employment, housing and accommodation died in committee when last introduced.

The new bill outlawing “conversion” therapy for LGBTQ youth is likely to face stiff opposition from conservatives who believe such treatment is part of their religious freedom.

But for several of the lawmakers sponsoring the bills, it is not just important legislation – it’s personal.

“This is so deeply personal,” said Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham). “I was a judge for 18 years, listening to cases and affording peoples’ rights when my rights couldn’t be afforded. The hypocrisy of that…and probably one of the happiest days of my life was when the Supreme Court said, ‘Yes, same-sex couples can be married.'”

Rep. Marcia Morey (D-Durham)

Morey’s voice was thick with emotion as she emphasized the importance of the LGBTQ community — and legislators who are part of that community — pressing forward even in the face of a GOP majority that dismisses progress for them.

“So we keep talking about this community — well,  the community is here too,” Morey said of the legislature. “And it matters to respect everyone and for us to say everyone is  equal, everyone should be afforded their rights. And finally, after 60 years, to come out and say ‘Yes I am part of this community.’ Without the shame – because our laws are changing and our attitudes are changing. And love conquers hate and discrimination.”

Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake) agreed. Calling herself “a gay member of this big body of government,” Dahle said she remembered LGBTQ constituents being encouraged by her running for office. Those same people – and many more – are now in the fight with her for equality, she said.

“It’s a blessing to have all these people behind me pushing forward and saying that we’re all human beings and we all deserve respect,” Dahle said.

The environment of anti-LGBTQ sentiment in the state that continues to generate new bills against same-sex marriage can make LGBTQ North Carolinians feel isolated, Dahle said.

“It’s ostracizing but ostracizing in a very subtle way,” she said. “There are places you don’t want to go. We don’t have that big problem here in Wake County. But I hear reports from people in smaller counties that it just cuts off their social life, it cuts them off from being out in public.”

Rep. Allison Dahle (D-Wake)

The Mental Health Protection Act would protect LGBTQ people – especially youth – from being targeted in by harmful programs that have been disavowed by every major medical association, advocates said this week. The American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all condemn the practice as harmful.

Though some religious organizations support the practice – meant to “cure” people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender – critics say it can’t be defended as an expression of religious freedom.

“This is a practice only an adult who has the mental capacity to consent should engage in, if they so choose,” said Kendra Johnson, executive director of Equality NC. “You cannot support electric shock therapy to change someone’s person, you cannot support sleep deprivation, starving children – all of those different things. Child abuse is not a parental right.”

More than 700,000 people have been subjected to the practice, which Johnson said has a strong correlation to suicide. Information on the number of North Carolinians who have undergone it is not readily available, she said, because the individuals and organizations who practice it are often not very transparent about it. Read more

Environment, Legislature

And the wind cried Harry: Sen. Brown introduces anti-wind energy bill — again

Sen. Harry Brown received $4,000 in campaign contributions last year from Koch Industries, which opposes wind energy and other renewables. (Photo: NC General Assembly)

Sen. Harry Brown, who last year received $4,000 in campaign contributions from anti-wind energy billionaires, the Koch Brothers, has filed a bill that would cripple the wind energy along the North Carolina coast.

The Onslow County Republican yesterday filed Senate Bill 377, the “Military Base Protection Act,” which would prohibit wind farms in areas that could present a high risk for military training exercises. Based on Department of Defense maps, the bill essentially outlaws wind farms within 100 miles of the coast — a prime area for wind energy.

Sens. Paul Newton, a former Duke Energy employee, and Norm Sanderson are the other primary co-sponsors of the bill.

Brown and other coastal wind energy opponents say wind turbines present an unacceptable risk to the military and could jeopardize the state’s bases in the next round of base closings. However, the Department of Defense Site Clearinghouse reviews all energy project proposals that could interfere with military missions, and works with states and energy companies to mitigate potential problems.

Federal law states that the Defense Department “may only oppose development of an energy project when impacts cannot be feasibly and affordably mitigated, and may significantly degrade or impair military operations.”

However, at least one military base, Otis Air National Guard in Massachusetts, has built its own independent microgrid using a wind turbine, solar energy and battery storage.

No military crashes have been reported with wind farms as the cause. In 2014, a Piper civilian plane crashed in South Dakota near a wind farm, but the FAA attributed bad weather, including dense fog, as the cause. In 2008, a Cessna crashed near a wind farm in Minnesota during bad weather. Federal investigators determined the pilot didn’t have the proper instrument training to fly in those conditions.

If it becomes law, the legislation would not affect the 104-turbine Amazon Wind Farm, which has operated in Perquimans and Pasquotank counties in northeastern North Carolina since 2017. That same year, Brown at the last minute inserted language into a clean energy bill that established an 18-month moratorium on new wind farms. The measure was controversial, and nearly hijacked months-long negotiations among Duke Energy, lawmakers and the clean energy sector. The bill eventually passed and became law. The hiatus expired on Dec. 31, 2018.

According to 2018 campaign finance reports, Koch Industries, which is run by the Koch Brothers, contributed $4,000 to Brown’s campaign. The Koch Brothers have made their fortune in fossil fuels.

Although the Trump administration has said the next closings could occur in 2021, that is speculative. Congress often opposes the closings, known as BRAC for short, to protect bases in their home districts.

Nonetheless, the Trump administration has several renewable energy opponents among its ranks. Christine Harbin, a senior adviser for external affairs in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Electricity Delivery and Energy Reliability, came from Americans for Prosperity, a longtime foe of renewable energy. According to DesSmogBlog, which coves climate science, in 2012, Harbin organized Koch Brothers-backed groups to send an anti-wind letter to Congress asking federal lawmakers to end wind production credits.

Commentary, Legislature, News, The State of Working North Carolina, Trump Administration

Trump’s overtime proposal leaves behind almost 300,000 North Carolina workers

Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced a proposal to change the salary threshold under which workers are entitled to overtime pay — to $35,308 a year from $23,600 a year.

Under federal law, people who work more than 40 hours per week are supposed to be paid 1.5 times their regular hourly rate for each overtime hour unless they fall into one of the many overtime exemptions.   The so-called “white collar” exemption allows employers to exempt salaried workers who make above the salary threshold from overtime pay if they are engaged in executive, administrative or professional duties.  Once the proposed rule takes effect, anyone making under $35,308 per year (or $679 per week) will not qualify for the exemption.

If you are experiencing déjà vu reading this, that’s because we have been here before.  Well, kind of.  In May of 2016, after two years of research and public input, the Obama DOL also published a new rule updating the salary threshold to $47,476 per year (or $913 per week).  That rule, however, was blocked by a federal court in Texas shortly before it was due to take effect.

The Trump Administration is taking credit for this proposed change, touting it for bringing “common sense, consistency, and higher wages to working Americans,” but they are actually leaving behind millions of Americans who can be required to work 50, 60 or 70 hours per week with no additional pay.

Because the 2016 rule included automatic increases every few years, by January 1, 2020 the salary level would be about $51,000 – $16,000 higher than the Trump proposal.   According to the Economic Policy Institute, the difference in salary levels means about 278,000 people in North Carolina who would have benefited from the 2016 rule are left out by the 2019 rule.  Nationally, that number is over 8 million.

Jumping to $35,308 from $23,600 may seem like a decent increase – and going from $23,600 all the way to $47,476 may strike you as extreme – but it is important to consider those numbers in context.

DOL used to periodically update the salary threshold to reflect changes in the economy and inflation, but the only time it has been updated since 1975 (setting aside the 2016 rule which was blocked) was in 2004.

According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), in the 1970s, about 65% of salaried workers earned under the threshold and were entitled to overtime pay.  The value of the salary threshold has eroded over time such that today, at the 2004 salary level, only 7% of salaried workers are under the salary threshold.

If the 1975 level was updated for inflation, it would be $55,000 today and would, likely, have the effect that the overtime requirement was originally intended to have: ensuring that overtime exempt employee are getting fairly compensated for extra  hours.

Between now and mid-May, the public can and should comment on the current salary proposal.

Clermont Ripley is a senior attorney at the N.C. Justice Center’s Workers’ Rights Project. 

Environment, Legislature, News

Cancer study bill advances; protections against leaking trash trucks introduced

(Illustration: University of California San Francisco)

Suspected cancer clusters would get closer scrutiny, according to a bill that passed with a favorable report from the Senate Ag, Environment and Natural Resources Committee today.

Senate Bill 297, sponsored by Sen. Vickie Sawyer, a Republican from Iredell County, would direct the NC Policy Collaboratory to assemble a Cancer Research Advisory Panel to review and analyze statewide cancer data.

The Collaboratory would then use the panel’s expertise to recommend ways for the state to establish a “credible research program” to determine “if and where statistic significant clusters of cancer exist.”

Sawyer mentioned the bill last week at a Mooresville town meeting about preliminary findings on a suspected cancer cluster in southern Iredell County.

“We need more help to find more answers,” said Sawyer, whose drinking water well lies within 2,000 feet of a structural fill site that contains coal ash. “This bill is the first step to find more answers for all of our backyards in North Carolina.”

Eleven other counties, primarily in the southeastern part of the state, have higher than expected rates of thyroid cancer.

Sawyer’s bill, though, would direct the Collaboratory to study not only the rates of thyroid cancer, but of all types of cancer diagnosed statewide. There have been 18 cases of a rare ocular melanoma in young women living in Huntersville.

The NC Department of Health and Human Services and the NC Department of Environmental Quality would consult on the panel, as well  as major medical schools and centers at Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and East Carolina universities.

Draft recommendations would be due no later than Dec. 31.

No appropriation has yet been included in the bill. It now goes to the Senate Rules Committee.

Several other environmental bills were introduced in the Senate this week:

SB 356 (Andy Wells, Harry Brown, primary sponsors): The Clean Water Management Trust Fund and the Parks and Recreation Trust Fund would each receive 12.5 percent of the net proceeds from the sale of state-owned property outside of the Capital District in Raleigh. Both funds run on gaunt budgets. Lawmakers routinely have cut the CWMTF budget, from $40 million in 2000 to as low as $6 million. In 2017, the CWMTF received $18 million, but that amount was 18 percent lower than the previous budget allocation.

SB 358 “Protect Citizens From Leaking Garbage Trucks” (Michael Garrett, Natasha Marcus, Mike Woodard, primary sponsors): This bill would repeal a portion of a dreadful 2013 Session Law that required solid waste trucks to only be “leak-resistant,” rather than “leak-proof.” (Section 59.2 for those of you playing along at home.)

So if garbage juice containing who-knows-what dripped, flowed or otherwise left the collection truck — and ended up on the road or the street in front of your house — that was legal. At the time, then-Sen. Trudy Wade had inserted in the language into the bill as a favor to her waste industry supporters.

And in the House, House Bill 479, “Study Solar Facility Decommissioning Requirements,” (Jimmy Dixon, sponsor) addresses some  conservatives’ opposition — disguised as environmental concerns — about utility-scale solar farms. (Dixon even opposes calling them “farms,” when Merriam-Webster allows for such usage.)

The bill language is technically reasonable in that it requires a study of performance bonds and the accounting of hazardous material that the panels could include.  According to the NC Sustainable Energy Association, while the panels themselves are not usually considered hazardous waste, some of the chemicals inside them must be properly disposed of in compliance with federal law. It is true that North Carolina lacks statewide rules regarding their disposal, but that authority is generally left to local governments.

Other industries that produce hazardous material rarely receive this level of scrutiny. The Coal Ash Management Act, for example, could have required Duke Energy to excavate every unlined impoundment and to then place the ash in dry, lined and capped storage. But the law didn’t.

The EPA doesn’t classify coal ash as “hazardous,” but that designation was influenced by political pressure, not science. Coal ash contains arsenic, lead, chromium, radium and other hazardous and toxic chemicals, but the non-hazardous designation allows the material to be used as structural fill or disposed in solid waste landfills.